Public Library Trustees: A Voice for All

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Library boards represent all members of the community, not just the majority.

Being a public library trustee is an important public trust. Trustees have a duty to see beyond their individual points of view and act to preserve and defend the values and opinions of everyone. In a diverse society where people are free to disagree with one another, dissent from the majority, and vigorously espouse individual beliefs, the library as a public institution should make room for all points of view, even those that are controversial. In America, after all, we often agree to disagree and believe that when ideas are exchanged freely, the answers we need will arise. We do not create consensus through suppression. American public libraries are cherished by Americans and admired and respected throughout the world because they expand access to information, not because they limit access. Boards ensure that the minority opinion has equal representation.

Library boards function as a buffer against exclusive practices.

Some groups would prefer to impose their agenda on a community and exclude dissenting ideas. The board should protect all voices and all opinions within the community. The most effective board policies are those that remain committed to their original goals and are not in response to emotional appeals.

Trustees make policy, they do not select.

The public library trustee, in partnership with the library’s director and staff, makes plans and policies for the library. They then monitor to make sure the plans and policies they have set are followed. Collection development policies set the criteria and target areas for materials selection and acquisition. Those criteria are in keeping with the library’s mission and service role in the community, recognize the library’s collection needs, and respect the principles of intellectual freedom. That is, materials should be selected because they meet a defined objective standard and not selected or rejected because they represent or offend a trustee’s, a staff member’s, or any individual’s point of view. Once these criteria are set, it is the responsibility of the director and library staff to make selections based on these criteria.

When trustees load the collection policy with too much detail and procedure, they may end up with an operations manual rather than a practical policy. Collection policies should guide selection, not manipulate and control every aspect of selection. Policies that are burdened with too many specifics can actually have the opposite effect. They may be ignored because they are difficult or impossible to follow or because the outlined procedures become outdated.

Content and use are not the same.

Understandably, library trustees may experience discomfort with materials that are controversial or offend one’s individual values and opinions. It may be helpful to remember that the content of a book and its use can be very different For example, a dictionary of occult practices and rituals could be used by a parent who is worried that his child is dabbling in occult practices and wants to understand symbols and references he is seeing and hearing so he can discuss them. A CD by a rap artist may contain vulgar or profane language, but it may also provide valuable insight into daily life in an inner city plagued by violence and drugs. Every material, in other words, has meaning and use beyond its face value. In a democratic society, we trust individuals to make their own judgments about the use and the meaning of the material.

A shared approach builds confidence

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